Secret Agent Mom

Last Editorial Review: 1/30/2005

I, Spy?

By Elaine Zablocki
WebMD Feature

June 18, 2001 -- Parents today can use technological marvels to monitor their children -- devices no one even heard of just a few years ago. Nannycams. Programs that keep a list of every web site your child visits. Dime-sized devices attached to a backpack or watchband that tell you where your child is, all the time.

Promoters of these devices promise peace of mind to overstressed parents. But are these devices improving -- or damaging -- our relationships with our children?

Brian Cury has a front-row view of the phenomenon as CEO and founder of EarthCam Inc., a webcam sales company. He says webcams for personal use are the fastest-growing segment of the market, quadrupling in the past year.

"All you need is a dial-up connection, and you can log in from anywhere in the world to see how your child is doing," says Cury. "Daycare centers now promote this service to attract parents who want to share special moments in their child's life, even while they're at work."

Sometimes electronic monitoring can be very useful, says Alan Hilfer, PhD, a pediatric psychologist at Maimonides Medical Center in New York City. "I recall parents who felt unsure and suspicious about the woman caring for their infants. They used a babycam to monitor the situation and learned their child was left alone crying all day while the caretaker visited with her boyfriend in the next room."

Invasion of the Privacy Snatchers

Despite such stories, other parents have considered these devices and voted against them.

"I decided against even using one of those walkie-talkie style baby monitors," says Mary Mazzocco, the mother of a 3-year-old and a journalism instructor at Solano Community College in Suisun, Calif.

"It seems to me they just make parents who use them more anxious and smothering," she says. "Things like global positioning systems or programs that list web sites your child has visited -- they strike me as creepy. I would have seriously considered running away from home if my parents had used that stuff on me. When you have a teenager who hasn't been in trouble and you use methods like that, you're just asking them to get in trouble."

"I think electronic spying, if used at all, should be limited to kids who are on 'probation' because of serious offenses against parental trust," says Betsy Schwartz, of Arlington, Mass., the mother of a 4-year-old. "A curfew and a cell phone should do it for most kids."

Sorting out appropriate and inappropriate uses of technological aids means tracing a fuzzy line, Hilfer says. "When are you doing something useful and helpful for your child's well-being? When are you indulging your own suspicious or intrusive nature?"

A Matter of Trust

If a day care center integrates a webcam into their work with parents, that probably feels good to everyone, says Jonathan Brush, PhD, a child psychologist with Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates in Boston and an instructor at Harvard Medical School. "Children may feel pleased that their parents can see them while they're at work."

But there has to be a clear distinction between young children, who don't have a great sense of privacy, and teenagers, who're in the process of separating themselves from their parents.

"Young children don't have so much need for a private life," Hilfer says. "But in early adolescence children begin to experiment with more freedom. They need to become more independent, and now they have the emotional tools to begin that process. They make mistakes, but that's how they learn, so a parent has to give them space."

In general, Jonathan Pochyly, PhD, agrees. But when an adolescent has already broken rules and seems to be in trouble, then these devices may play a useful role.

"When I see these children in the office with their parents, they often disagree about the facts, so a source of additional objective information is helpful," says Pochyly, a staff psychologist at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago.

But parents shouldn't use these devices on the sly, Pochyly believes, and they should never spy on their children.

"But these devices could be part of an explicit program to recover lost trust between parent and child," he says. "The parent should discuss the issue with the child, and explain why monitoring is needed 'until I can trust you again.'"

Brush agrees.

"Adolescents are trying to separate from their parents, and that's developmentally appropriate," he says. "For normal adolescents, these devices would be intrusive and possibly damaging to the parents' relationship with the child. That means people who want to use these devices need to look carefully at their concerns. Is there some particular reason this child needs extra supervision, such as a drug problem, or drinking and driving? In those cases it may be appropriate to explain that you have to keep a closer eye on them."


Another question should be: Are we legally allowed to monitor our children?

Dean Kaufman, a lawyer who practices in Eugene, Ore., says in his state if you record a conversation without letting all participants know about it first, it's a Class A misdemeanor, subject to a fine or as much as a year in jail. However, the prohibition doesn't apply if you record members of your own family within your own home.

Which means, in Oregon, at least, children could theoretically file civil lawsuits against their parents for harassment and invasion of privacy. The lawsuit would be more plausible if use of monitoring devices was secret, Kaufman says, less plausible if it was part of a management program discussed with the child.

Since each state makes its own laws on these issues, parents would be well-served to consult a lawyer for information on local laws on childhood monitoring, he says.

What Brought Us to This?

The romanticized idea of an American childhood used to mean pickup ball games, putting on an impromptu show in the back yard, and unscheduled time to decipher cloud shapes and daydream. Ask grownups today for images of an ideal childhood, and they'll describe Tom Sawyer whitewashing a fence or Huck Finn drifting down the Mississippi.

Tomorrow's adults are more likely to recall back-to-back appointments for Little League, drama club, soccer camp, dance recitals, and foreign language drills.

"In general, parents are highly stressed today, more worried about their jobs," Brush says. "As everybody gets busier we have less contact with our kids. We're not at home as much, and the kids, too, are out doing other things."

Parents sometimes don't know how to relate to their children's activities, Pochyly says.

"You may tune out your child when they're talking about current music," he says. "Then, when you want to know how they're handling challenges like sex and drugs, the connection is missing. Pay attention when they talk about subjects that don't interest you very much, so they will talk with you about the important stuff."

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